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Swimming pools scramble to overcome lifeguard shortage as opening day looms. Teen workforce, unnerved by COVID-19, proves hard to reach.

Persuading a teenager to become a lifeguard has never been easy. The job comes with life-or-death responsibility yet often pays less than flipping burgers or folding sweaters.

But as outdoor pools in the Chicago area get ready to open for the summer, many for the first time in two years, recruitment is proving harder than ever.

Numerous park districts say they’re well behind their lifeguard hiring goals, with dozens of slots left to fill as opening day approaches. The lingering effects of the pandemic have complicated an already difficult task, some managers say, making teens (and their parents) more reluctant to seek the quintessential summer job.

“Some parents are concerned about COVID in general and are trying to protect their families from it, and there does seem to be a level of our anxiety out there in the teenage population,” said Mike Eschenbach of the three-pool Dundee Township Park District, which still needs to hire about 40 lifeguards in three weeks.

“Kids are already anxious, and when you try to give them a level of responsibility like lifeguarding has, it scares them even more.”

In response to the shortfall, pools have turned to hiring incentives, aggressive advertising campaigns and, in some cases, higher pay to coax young people into the chair. But plenty of vacancies remain.

“While we’re concerned, we’re not panicking,” said Gene Haring of the Des Plaines Park District, which has boosted its lifeguard pay by 50 cents to $12 an hour this summer in an attempt to fill dozens of empty slots.

Other pools, though, say they’ve managed to round up recruits without increasing wages. Sean Caddigan of the Tinley Park Park District said the district sent a mass email to high school deans and swim coaches appealing for candidates when its pools looked like they would come up short.

The effort paid off: 75 people replied with two days, Caddigan said, and the district, which had begun discussions about hiking its $11.25 hourly pay rate, decided to stand pat.

“The campaign was so successful we didn’t feel we needed to do that,” he said.

The Chicago Park District also faces a dearth of applicants this year. Chief program manager Alonzo Williams, testifying at a City Council committee hearing earlier this month, put some blame on the COVID-induced shutdowns of a lifeguard apprenticeship program for two years running.

“Each year we get roughly 200 to 250 kids from that program,” he said.

He said the Park District has spent money this year advertising in local newspapers and sending posters and fliers to community groups. A spokeswoman for the agency did not respond to questions about the number of positions yet to be filled.

In Elmhurst, projecting the number of lifeguards needed has been complicated by state guidelines on operating a pool during the pandemic.

Illinois’ “bridge phase,” which began Friday, means outdoor pools can accommodate multiple groups of 100, though those groups must be separated. But if all goes well, the state will hit Phase 5 next month, which means there will be no capacity limits.

“That’s where things get interesting for us, and we have to decide whether to extend our hours,” said Sarah Lagesse, division manager of facilities for the Elmhurst Park District.

The Elmhurst Park District is trying to hire 120 lifeguards for the summer but has only 90 locked down, she said. It’s offering to reimburse the cost of training and award an end-of-summer bonus to go along with its $12 hourly pay.

Jessica Gray of the lifeguard training company StarGuard Elite, which works with 60 pools in the Chicago area, said the rejiggered high school sports calendar, which has some young athletes extending their seasons beyond their normal end dates, is responsible for some of the shortage.

But another factor, she said, is anxiety over enforcing masking and social distancing rules to a COVID-weary public.

“That’s hard on people going into work every day,” she said.

Brandon Krozel, a lifeguard instructor who also serves as executive director of the Lakeview YMCA in Chicago, said while the struggle to find lifeguards is an old one — “A lot of times they’re like, ‘Why would I take on this huge amount of risk when I can work for a retail store or a restaurant?’” — the Y has established a pipeline of returnees that should see it fully staffed through the summer.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to get it done,” he said.

Zachary Olenek, 20, from left, Danielle Hrinowich, 18, Morgan Miller, 15, and Mikie Kilbourne, 18, tread water with their hands up during lifeguard testing at the Rakow Center outdoor pool in Carpentersville on May 12, 2021.

Zachary Olenek, 20, from left, Danielle Hrinowich, 18, Morgan Miller, 15, and Mikie Kilbourne, 18, tread water with their hands up during lifeguard testing at the Rakow Center outdoor pool in Carpentersville on May 12, 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

The Dundee Township Park District is tapping its own pipeline in an attempt to do likewise, asking experienced lifeguards to pitch the job to their friends and classmates. Signing up a new addition to the pool deck is worth a $50 bounty, Eschenbach said.

Ben Hrinowich, a 16-year-old sophomore at Dundee-Crown High School, said the COVID routine of sitting around at home has been hard to break for some of his peers, but he has already hauled in seven or eight people he knows at school by offering to split the bonus with them.

He’s hopeful lifeguarding’s sunny allure might yet sway even more.

“You can get a tan, you can be with your friends,” he said. “It’s a good work environment. It’s a good experience to have as a young person.”

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